Kearny keeper Aracely Vasquez had yet to make a save on a penalty kick all season long heading into Thursday night.
Her first stop on a PK is one that won’t soon be forgotten in Kearny.
In the seventh round of penalty kicks, Vasquez dove to her right and with both hands shoved away the shot from Bayonne’s Riley WIlliams to give Kearny its 15th consecutive Hudson County championship, outlasting Bayonne, 5-4 in PKs, in the Hudson County Tournament final at Red Bull Arena.
The two teams were deadlocked at 1-1 following 80 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods.
“I have not (been stopping penalty shots) and normally I would say that’s a strong suit of mine, but recently it hasn’t been,” Vasquez said. “I’m just grateful to God that I got the chance to show myself and prove it and win the game for everyone.”
While Kearny’s multi-decade reign as the best in Hudson County continues, its status was challenged in a way it hasn’t in years. Rather than be overwhelmed, like they have been in several of the past finals, Bayonne stood toe-to-toe with the Kardinals.
Kylie Galano’s goal in the 77th minute tied the game for Bayonne and forced an overtime in the tournament’s history. After having the better of attack in overtime, Bayonne immediately seized control of penalty kicks when goalie Caitlin Gaetani made a diving save on Olivia Covello in the first round, then stopped Ava Natosi’s shot in the fourth round.
Trailing 3-2 after four rounds and needing a goal in order to keep its title hopes alive, Keala Cicchino scored for Kearny with a shot to the top-left corner of the net. Five rounds of PK proved not to be enough as Bayonne’s next shot sailed high, necessitating the need to continue.
In the sixth round, Kearny’s Mason Gryckiewicz and Bayonne’s Katherine Sorrentino traded goals. For the seventh round, the Kardinals turned to freshman Makayla David, who sent a shot inside the left post for a goal to put Kearny up 5-4.
“I’ve been through these types of moments with my club team, so I have experience (with PKs),” David said. “But I was so nervous because it’s Red Bull Arena with a lot of fans in the stands.”
Now it was time for Vasquez to finish the job and complete its greatest challenge within the county in more than 20 years.
“I was really frustrated at myself in the beginning because I was not saving any of them. I was going the wrong way, I was thinking too much,” Vasquez said.”All I was thinking about was that I need to end this, I need to help out my team. They’ve been helping me out all game so I need to get here and make a big save to end the game.”
With a dive to the right, Vasquez got both hands on the ball to knock it away before running towards the center line to celebrate with her teammates.
In a shootout competition you’re asking your goalkeeper to make one save,” Kearny coach Michael Sylvia said. “I knew it was going to come because I’ve seen her do it in practice and I know what kind of athlete she is and it was going to happen eventually. The longer it went on, the more confidence I had.”
“I broke down into tears,” said freshman Melissa Mota, who gave Kearny a 1-0 lead with her goal in the 37th minute. “I was over there in the huddle crying, just thanking everybody for playing such a good game.”
The emotion was understandable. Several times during this run, the final was merely one last Kearny blowout as it steamrolled its Hudson County competition
This championship, however, required perseverance and toughness. Playing an independent schedule, Kearny started the season with seven consecutive losses, a stunning stretch for a team that routinely is well above .500.
Their fortunes started in early October with wins over North Bergen and Hoboken, followed by a double overtime victory against Bridgewater-Rartian that Sylvia said was the true turning point of the season.
Kearny is now unbeaten in seven consecutive games heading into its regular season finale on Monday at Newark East Side.
“This championship definitely feels different for sure,” Sylvia said. “I’m not saying that any of the other ones we didn’t have to work for or that any of the other ones are easy, but this one was different.
All credit to Bayonne. They got a great program and they played with so much heart and that’s a credit to the coaches and the players on that field. But nobody’s taking this from us.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)